The Frugal Café | Photo credit: Rebecca Anne, "Flora's Cup"</a> | Creative Commons License, Flickr.com
Photo credit: Rebecca Anne, "Flora's Cup" | Creative Commons License, Flickr.com

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Descoware: Vintage Cookware Still Popular... and a Bargain to Boot

By Vicki McClure Davidson

 

My mom helped me out when I left home for my first apartment by giving me a small variety of some of her kitchen tools and pans. One piece of prized cookware that she let me "have" was a large, heavy, flame-red round pot. She'd received it as a wedding gift in the late 1950s.

That big sunburst-red pot, a bit beat up but still totally functional, had been used in the making of many batches of soup, spaghetti sauce, and casseroles for our family's dinners throughout my childhood. It was like an old friend, although I never gave it much thought. We had always had it.

I was allowed to take the pot on the condition that I promised Mom—several times—that if I ever wanted to get rid of it, I'd have to give it back to her. I promised. Now, several decades later and with some research about that large red pot under my belt, I understand why.

It was Descoware.

Descoware History

TV chef Julia Child adored Descoware. This is a medium-sized flame-red Descoware oblong roasting pan with lid... I won this gorgeous piece, in near-mint condition, on eBay for a fraction of its worth. Most lidded Descoware pots this size are round; I've rarely seen this oval shape. It's a real workhorse in my kitchen.

TV chef Julia Child adored Descoware. This is a medium-sized flame-red Descoware oblong roasting pan with lid... I won this gorgeous piece, in near-mint condition, on eBay for a fraction of its worth. Most lidded Descoware pots this size are round; I've rarely seen this oval shape. It's a real workhorse in my kitchen.

Descoware® is an enamelware (enamel over cast iron) brand of cookware that was manufactured in Belgium beginning in the mid-1940s. The company was originally called Bruxelles Ware, but later changed its name to Descoware, coming from the US name of the company, the D.E. Sanford Company. The unique name, Descoware, is an acronym forged from the name of the company: D-E-S-CO.

The Descoware company had some steep competition during the late 1960's and 1970's. Le Creuset®, a French brand, was being aggressively marketed with new designs each year. Eventually, after losing huge amounts of money, the Belgium company was forced to go out of business and stopped manufacturing this brand of cookware in the 1970s. Le Creuset bought the Descoware patents. However, Le Creuset adapted the patents for their own line of cookware, and within a short period, "real Descoware" was no longer.

Therefore, any piece of Descoware that is still in use today is older than 40 years. These exquisite enamelware-over-cast-iron pieces are virtually indestructible—unless a cook stupidly lets all the liquid cook away on a high heat, which I did to the precious red-flamed pot about 18 years ago, much to my horror and chagrin, while boiling a batch of dried beans that I had forgotten about on the burner.

As a result, the interior glaze cracked and pitted in the old family pot. Since Descoware cookware is no longer manufactured, I've not been able to find anyone to repair it. However, even with the enamel chipped, the pot is still safe, although not too pretty, to use. The cast iron that is exposed doesn't pose any health dangers. However, I'm very careful with what I now cook in it.

My mom, now in her seventies, still doesn't know that I nearly killed the Descoware pot, so please don't tell her. It's wounded, but far from dead.

Far from it.

Chef Julia Child and Her Love of Descoware

This cookware—quality cast iron covered on the inside with enamel glaze on the inside—is ideal for cooking many foods on the stove top or in the oven. It was made to last with minimal care. Descoware gained huge popularity when it was endorsed by PBS TV chef-celebrity Julia Child on her acclaimed cooking show, The French Chef, in the '60s and '70s.

Julia was a joyful cooking maverick at the time, the most reputable chef on television, mixing French and American cuisine with style and fun. She took the intimidation out of French cooking.

A tall woman, standing 6 feet 2 inches, Julia commanded attention, but she never was pretentious or infallible. She won the hearts of American cooks, and ultimately won three Emmys (with a total of seven nominations) and a Peabody award for her various cooking TV shows over the decades. In total, she was given hundreds of awards and honors during her career, including the French Legion D'Honneur for her contributions to the reputation of French culinary tradition. She also authored a number of best-selling cookbooks.

Her start in television cooking began in an unusual way. Julia, who had never been a good cook, enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu in 1949 three years after marrying her husband, Paul. She was 37 years old, and had received a copy of the Larousse Gastronomique —considered the "Bible" of French cooking—from Paul for her birthday. She qualified for the school because of her service during World War II. The US government paid tuition for G.I.'s who wanted the training offered by the school as thanks to American veterans for their aid in liberating France. Julia was the only woman in her class. Even though there was gender-bias for her to deal with (and she was exceedingly tall and rather clumsy), she completed the school's rigorous training regime and received her diploma in 1951 when she was 39.

Julia's Jump to Television

In the 1950s and early 1960s, educational TV programming was struggling for interesting personalities and subject matter. It consisted mainly of stuffy lectures, yawn-inducing book discussions, and dry science demonstrations. Color television was still years away, and the studio lighting and transmission for these black-and-white TV shows were less than desirable. Most of the people who starred in these shows were experts in their field, but not effective performers.

Julia Child became a celebrated TV chef during this era quite by accident. In 1962, she and her husband were invited to a Boston public-service station for a book review show about her new cookbook. Because she felt that demonstration was more effective than just talking, she brought with her a copper bowl, a whisk, an apron, and some eggs.

Julia Child on the cover of her acclaimed cookbook, The French Chef
Julia Child on the cover of her acclaimed cookbook, <em>The French Chef</em>

The viewer response was totally unexpected. Julia's cooking demonstration was refreshing and fascinating. Her enthusiasm about French cooking and cooking in general was often unintentionally humorous. She was knowledgeable, but down to earth. No one had seen anyone like her before on television and viewing housewives went nuts. They clamored for more of Julia. From that initial cooking demonstration, which was just meant to help sell a book about French cuisine, she was soon thereafter launched as the star of WGBH-Boston’s hit cooking series, The French Chef.

Without any compensation for her endorsements, Julia sang the praises of cooking with Descoware on her show. She loved the controlled, even cooking enamelware offered to food and how it could be used in so many ways in the kitchen. While she used other brands and types of cookware on the show, she used her enamelware whenever she could. She rated Descoware ahead of Le Creuset for its functionality. As a result, housewives in the United States during the "Make Love, Not War" era were compelled to own at least one piece of the durable cookware to have a modern-equipped, chic kitchen like Julia's. Descoware became a culinary status symbol because of Julia.

Julia's Famous Descoware-topped Stove

Julia's own personal stove had a remarkable Descoware top. It was put on display at the Smithsonian in late 2001. Julia and her husband had bought the used, six-burner restaurant stove for $429 in Washington, D.C., in 1956. The Model 182 Garland commercial gas range was shipped to her family's Cambridge, Massachusetts home in 1961. There it remained until Julia donated it, along with more than 1,200 objects from her celebrity kitchen, to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History (click here to read the Smithsonian press release).

Securing and transferring all the culinary items in Julia's kitchen for the Smithsonian exhibit was no small feat. For months, museum curators, collections managers, designers, photographers, and historians worked diligently in a museum gallery to unpack and inventory more than 50 crates that were filled with everything that was in Child's kitchen: from her beloved big Garland stove to the knives and pots and potato peelers. Even her kitchen sink and cabinets were brought and painstakingly re-assembled.

Julia cooked meals, tested thousands of recipes, and gave cooking lessons on her Garland stove for more than 40 years. The durability of its Descoware top withstood years of vigorous cooking. During the three cooking shows that were taped in her home kitchen, Julia used a handier electric wall oven, but she reportedly was never as pleased by its performance. The Descoware-topped Garland remained her favorite.

Despite her advancing age, Julia often cooked with other chefs on TV into this century. She teamed up in her twilight years with French chef Jacques Pépin. She was Good Morning, America's food editor from 1980 to 2000. She even made an appearance on Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood in 1974 and provided vocals for the 1993 animated feature film We're Back! A Dinosaur's Story. NBC's Saturday Night Live's Dan Aykroyd did a spot-on parody of her in the 1970s, which is still considered one of the show's best skits. To view some video clips of Julia on several of her cooking shows, click here.

Julia passed away from kidney failure in 2004 at the age of 91 (husband Paul had died in 1994). She was two days away from her 92nd birthday. She will always be remembered and cherished for what she brought to American television and to American kitchens. Descoware was one of those things.

Related Reading and Photo Galleries:

Descoware Photo Gallery, Page 1
Descoware Photo Gallery, Page 2
Classic Television Cooking Clips: The Incomparable Julia Child
Descoware: Cast Iron That Warms Up Your Kitchen... Descoware Collecting and Cleaning Tips
Descoware Stories: Markley Farm Kitsch Set, Descoware Flame Beanpot
Descoware Stories: The Saucepan and the Cork

 

Descoware in This Century

Despite the long-time endorsement of top chefs such as Julia, the fashion-conscious home cooks of America clamored for more color variety and "hip" designer looks. Sales dropped in the 1970s, and eventually, Descoware was bought up by the Le Creuset company. The Descoware patent was adapted and used for a number of years, but fell by the wayside by Le Creuset as time marched on. While the collection of vintage Descoware today is steady, there are still countless people who cook who have never heard of Descoware (these same people may also not know of Julia Child).

You may stumble upon an excellent piece of Descoware at a yard sale or thrift store with a staggeringly low price of a couple of dollars.

The irony of the low price is, despite its age, Descoware's performance is as excellent as that of Le Creuset, which can cost hundreds of dollars for just ONE new piece (for example, Le Creuset's roaster pan with lid sold for more than $400) in 2008. I recently won a gorgeous, heavy-duty flame-red Descoware roaster pan with lid, as shown on our Descoware photo gallery, that cost me just $29.00 on eBay. A new 12-piece set of Le Crueset costs an average of $999 to $1,700 USD. Descoware, because it is used, less well known with this generation, and is a tad bit more difficult to find, costs a fraction of Le Creuset.

This isn't to say Le Creuset is inferior—quite the contrary. It is an excellent brand of cookware. But why pay so much when Descoware is similar in its original design and much less expensive? You need to keep your eyes open, but the bargains are out there.

Taking Care of Your Descoware

While Descoware cookware is sturdy, harsh chemicals (like bleach) can break down the enamel. I've read on a few websites that bleach is recommended for cleaning stains inside Descoware. NO, NO, NO! Don't do it!

Any heavy-duty abrasive scrubbers (like steel wool and buffing compounds) will be too much for it to withstand. It's quite durable, but NOT indestructible. Enamel formulas used 50 to 70 years ago in manufacturing were not very acid resistant. Descoware can be used on the stove or in the oven (unless you have wooden handles or plastic knobs; these should be removed before the piece goes into the oven). To remove stubborn stains, soak the piece in hot water for about an hour. If that doesn't do the trick, make a thick paste of baking soda and water and coat the pan let it stand for about an hour, then fill the pan with water. Let it sit overnight. The next morning, you should be able to run a wet washcloth over it and it should clean up without any effort, almost like brand new. Be sure to NEVER let your Descoware cook down dry on a high heat. The enamel coating on the inside will crack or pit, never again to be the same (this is the voice of experience warning you). Also, don't rub too hard if using a cleaning solution, as you could start to remove the enamel coating.

As we've already covered, the enamel is pretty durable, but there are limits to the heat it can be subjected to if there is nothing in the pot. Never let what you're boiling to boil down to nothing. Bad, bad, bad for the enamel coating. Also, be sure to start the heat on low and then work up to higher temperatures so as to be sure that you won't crack the enamel.

Selling and Buying Descoware

Descoware is still a sought-after brand of cookware, although seemingly low-level on the radar of the second-hand market. Today, single pieces that are rare and in mint or near-mint condition with a lid can command more than $100 USD in classified ads or on eBay. If original packaging or stickers are included, the value increases. But typically, a medium-sized piece with normal wear will sell for about $15 to $30 USD, sometimes less. A fantastic bargain.

The flame-red (also called sunburst flame or sunburst orange) color was the most popular color back in its heyday, so these usually sell for less because they are in more abundance. The company made other colors: yellow, white, sky blue, antique gold, green, and floral, vegetable, or autumn leaf motifs on a cream or white background. For more information about styles and colors, check out our Descoware Photo Gallery. By no stretch of the imagination is it complete, but we update it with photos and information often.

You can also visit fan-based blogs for info. Be aware, though, that this is more of an FAQ-information sharing site. They DO NOT give appraisals on the worth of your Descoware, so don't attempt to ask. For that kind of information, scan your newspaper's classifieds or CraigsList.com, and also analyze what sells best and for what prices on the online auction sites and on used cookware sites.

If you have a sizable collection, consider calling an expert for an appraisal. An appraiser may buy your lot on the spot, but don't expect top dollar, since he or she is likely going to resell it for a profit.

I recently placed an initial eBay bid of $5.00 on a rare, flame-red oval au gratin baking dish in nearly mint shape. The bidding grew more intense, and I dropped out once it hit $20.00. Good thing, too—right now we can't afford the $84.00 it ultimately sold for. Not to mention the $29.00 shipping cost (Descoware is really, really heavy, but the shipping cost was much more than I thought it should have been). But, wow, that piece was a real beauty. So, a few months later, I saw another identical one listed on eBay, and inexplicably, won it for just $16.00. I think shipping was around $10.00. Timing is everything.

Now that the US economy has gone topsy-turvy and we're in a recession, Descoware may shoot up in value. Since new enamel-covered cast iron cookware costs a small fortune, people may start investigating cheaper alternatives. Even if Descoware were to double in value (the ol' law of supply and demand), it would still be significantly less expensive than buying any comparable cookware new. However, it is just as likely that the value could drop, since consumers are less willing to spend money these days. However, I've been watching the activity on eBay for Descoware pieces, and the brisk pace I've been seeing makes me think that Descoware will retain or gain on its value.

Go through your cabinets and storage areas. You may have inherited a piece of Descoware from Grandma without even realizing the treasure you have. Or, go to Grandma's and ask her about it. She may have some forgotten pieces up in the attic. If you're in a financial bind, you can likely sell the piece(s) for a respectable amount of cash.

Blue 8-inch Descoware skillet with detachable wooden handle still intact and in excellent condition
Blue 8-inch Descoware skillet with detachable wooden handle still intact and in excellent condition

Condition and Rarity Counts

Be aware that collectors can be persnickety about the condition of the piece, so gently-used or never-used mint pieces will fetch the loftier dollar amounts. Common pieces with significant marring or chips may not even attract attention. However, you may decide to keep the piece and start using it in your kitchen. They are still totally functional, even if they have a few battle scars.

Ideally, if you're hoping to sell your piece, there will be no chips in or flaking of the enamel. A bit of crazing (those thin spiderweb-like lines, like surface cracks in hard candy) in the enamel is usually acceptable (except to the truly persnickety buyer, of course), because this happens as a matter of course through usage.

Some pieces of Descoware were sold with detachable wooden handles. These were removed when putting the pot into the oven or when cleaning. You can identify these (if they're missing the wooden handle) because the metal handle will be fairly stumpy and have a hollow center for the wooden handle to be inserted into. If you're looking to buy or sell a piece like this, know that the value jumps significantly if the wooden handle is still around and if it is in decent condition. Often, the wooden handle has been misplaced or damaged over the years. If you spy a piece missing the handle, I really don't recommend buying it, but it's up to you. Replacing the wooden handle may be difficult and expensive, and what you have with the truncated cast iron handle that remains will be a big pain to work with when you're cooking. Rather, you may prefer to purchase a cookware piece that has metal handles (nothing to ever lose and the pot can always go into the oven "as is") and just be sure to always use potholders like I do. Those handles, even for moderate stove top cooking, can get mighty hot!

Best Time to Sell

If you do indeed want to sell some Descoware pieces, the best results on auction sites seem to be around June (for weddings) and at Christmas-time. That's when a grandparent, parent, fiancé, or spouse is most likely to spend more to present a newly married person with a Descoware piece as a gift that will become a family heirloom. The cookware seems to be recession-proof, at least for right now. Their value, coupled with good condition, will likely not decrease. Quality withstands the test of time, right?

On the other hand, I suggest that if want to buy a piece that you shop for Descoware in late winter (after Christmas) or early spring to buy a June wedding gift. Late summer is usually good, too, for buying. You may get a better price because of the "off season."

Photo Collage: A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Words

Descoware is distinctive and beautiful in a rugged kind of way. It is a workhorse for holding in heat and the handles, most of which are made of cast iron, are extremely sturdy (an indication of excellence when looking at lesser cookware these days). Click here to see our Descoware photo gallery of a number of pieces that are still in use by passionate cooks and collectors.

My own Descoware collection has grown nicely. I'm including photos of the pieces I now have and use all the time. My favorite color is still the flame-red, although I have a small oval yellow one that I use almost exclusively for sautéing garlic. I've used it for more than 25 years and it's still in exceptional shape. I recently acquired a gorgeous blue stock pot with lid in nearly mint condition that I'm using often for homemade soups.

I've been lucky to find some of these pieces at thrift stores, marked well below their market value. If push comes to shove, I know I can resell them for a hefty increase, but for now, I'm ardent about keeping these pieces of Americana cookware in my home, where I can enjoy using them.

I will eventually give some of my Descoware pieces to my teenage daughter when she moves out. And, trust in that I will solemnly repeat what my mother said to me, without a moment's hesitation: "The day you want to get rid of them, I want them back."

 

This mint, flame-red Descoware 3-quart beanpot with lid is one of several pieces of Descoware that I've been unsuccessful at winning on auction sites. However, I've not given up.

This mint, flame-red Descoware 3-quart beanpot with lid is one of several pieces of Descoware that I've been unsuccessful at winning on auction sites. However, I've not given up.

 

Related Reading and Photo Galleries:

Descoware Photo Gallery, Page 1
Descoware Photo Gallery, Page 2
Descoware: Cast Iron That Warms Up Your Kitchen... Descoware Collecting and Cleaning Tips
Descoware Stories: The Saucepan and the Cork
Descoware Stories: Markley Descorama Farm Kitsch Set, Descoware Flame Beanpot
Classic Television Cooking Clips: The Incomparable Julia Child
Frugal Cooking Secrets of... Julia Child, Devin Alexander, & Emeril Lagasse
Frugal Café Blog Zone: Bon Appétit — Google Doodle Pays Tribute to 100th Birthday of Remarkable Cooking Legend Julia Child (video)
Frugal Cooking Secrets of... Gordon Ramsay, Julia Child, & Jamie Oliver
Pasta Perfection: How to Cook Pasta Perfectly Every Time
99-Cent Only Store Gumption & Imagination... Delicious, Cheap Meals
Celebrity Recipes: Paula Deen's Dutch Oven Peach Cobbler
Celebrity Recipes: Loretta Lynn's Tater Cakes
Celebrity Recipes: Dave Lieberman's Sourdough Bread Stuffing
Celebrity Recipes: Art Linkletter's Stewed Chicken with Noodles
Frugal Versions of Famous Soups: Ronald Reagan's Hamburger Soup, Soup Nazi's Cream of Sweet Potato Soup, and More
Frugal Café Blog Zone: Food Jungle Conquest: Diced Chile Peppers, Bargain Bin
Frugal Café Blog Zone: Fab Food Friday Fotos and Recipes: BBQ Beer-Can Chicken, Best Caramel Corn, Revithosoupa, Zucchini Cookies, Dirty Rice & Shrimp, Pumpkin Curry, Salads, Tandoori Chicken, Split Pea Soup, Smoked Fish Cakes, Corn Pudding, Recipes, & More
Frugal Café Blog Zone: Fab Food Friday Fotos: Leftover Turkey Recipes, Taco Tuesdae, Chili Con Carne, Coffee Mousse Cake, Indonesian Tempeh with Green Beans, Apple Cinnamon Muffins, & More

 

Sources:
Descoware website; (www.descoware.com).
Internet Movie Data Base website, (www.imdb.com).
Smithsonian Institute of American History website, "Bon Appetit! Julia Child's Kitchen at the Smithsonian" (/americanhistory.si.edu/juliachild/jck/html/textonly/st4.asp).
Wikipedia website; "Descoware" (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Descoware).
You Picked a Winner website, "A Brief History of Descoware," (www.youpickedawinner.com/desco_hist.html).